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The Ghosts of Christmas past
by Helen Charlesworth

Jake strolled over to the bar and ordered a drink. He looked around to see if he recognised anyone. There were a few familiar faces, some vaguely familiar and some he could not place at all. Though, in reality everyone looked the same. Same regimental blazer, same tie, same medals. A number of chaps had more than others but whether they deserved them or not, was sometimes debatable.

He paid for his drink and took it over to a table where a bunch of fellows, obviously pleased to see each other again were chucking each other on the shoulders and exchanging manly hugs.

"Hodgson. Good to see you!" Philip Charman held out his hand and gave Jake a mighty ‘old school’ handshake.

"Howard not here then?" Asked Jake as he scanned the group of merry faces.

"No couldn’t make it this year, some trouble on the Estate. Had to go and sort it out. Probably just an excuse not to come if you ask me." Philip lit his pipe and offered his tobacco pouch to Jake.  Jake shook his head. " Sorry, got gassed in ’16."

He gave a little cough as though to prove it.

"Sorry old boy forgot." Charman shrugged his shoulders and put the pouch back into his breast pocket. " Still in Insurance then?" He asked, though already knowing the answer he was just trying to make polite conversation.

They exchanged pleasantries until Charman was called back to the group. The laughter now becoming more raucous as the drink took effect.

Jake walked over to the bar and ordered himself a double. He’d need it to get through this evening. It’s not that he didn’t like the men he served with, he did. They had been like brothers, always there for each other defending each other with their lives….

" Penny for ‘em?" The voice jolted him from his thoughts. " Marcus Lawson." They shook hands. "Though you’ll probably remember me as Lofty Lawson B company." Jake vaguely recognised the face but pretended instant recognition all the same.

"Good to see you again old boy! How’s things?"

" Oh you know." Marcus took a drink from his glass and then swirled the drink around. Little droplets splashing over the rim .

" Staying here tonight are you? Decent place this." Marcus cast his eyes around the modern Art Deco style of the room.

" No." Jake shook his head. " I don’t live too far, twenty minutes by cab. Got work tomorrow anyway."

Marcus pointed to an empty table. The two comfy chairs deep and welcoming.

"Come on let’s take some of the weight off our feet." Jake and his new acquaintance made their way to the table. Nodding polite hello’s to old friends as they did so.

Jake made himself comfortable as he sipped his drink and shuffled the papers on the table subconsciously. He wanted to pick one up and read it so that he could escape the crowd but dared not to as he didn’t want to offend his fellow guest.

"Hate these things." Said Marcus. Jake looked up, surprised by his acquaintances sudden remark.

"How many have we had now eight? How many more will we have to go through before they’ll let us forget and get on with our lives?" He threw his head back and downed his drink in one. " You look how I feel. Uncomfortable and uninterested. I bet you only came because of the ribbing you knew you’d get if you didn’t?"

Jake smiled and let out a little laugh.

"See I knew it. Soon as you walked in I could see the look on your face. The nervous haunted look."

Jake’s smile left his face. He suddenly became aware of what Marcus had said… ‘haunted.’

Marcus got out of his seat and headed towards the bar, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. He turned to mouthed to Jake. "Another whisky?" Jake nodded.

"Here we are." Marcus placed the tray he was carrying, on the table in front of them.

"Good old Johnny Walker eh, what we have done without him ?" They both laughed and said "cheers!"

"What you said before, what did you mean by haunted?" Asked Jake.

"Well, it’s just you came in looking apprehensive, as though you didn’t want to be here. And I know as well as you that the only people here are fellows we fought alongside with for four years. Yet you came in looking as though you were being fed to the lions!"

Jake smiled. "Just don’t like crowds really, like to keep myself to myself."

"I didn’t come last year." Announced Marcus, as though he hadn’t really been listening to Jake. "I was in hospital. Nervous problems they called it, ‘neurasthenia’. Give it a fancy name then send you off home with a bottle of pills." He laughed and took a swig from his glass. Offering Jake a cigar he had purchased at the bar. Jake waved it away with his hand. Marcus continued. "I’d been having regular meeting with some fellow Officers and a few lads from the unit. We’d go back to the battlefield and try to re-enact scenes, trying to make the ending different. Only problem was it kept happening at night when I was in bed and although I tried desperately to wake up I only got further and further into the dreams." Jake winced. It was as though Marcus was reading his mind and telling him what was in it.

"Those lads all died back in ’15 and ’16. They’re no more real than this whisky is of being water, but they kept on coming. Telling me how to do things different this time…this time would be different. Only what ever I did different, the ending was always the same…" His voice trailed off.

"These dreams." Jake said. "Do they happen every night or only sometimes?"

"It depends, sometimes I would go for weeks and have nothing more than the odd flash back other times it happened night after night after night….You?" His last remark took Jake by surprise more than the fact that his companion also suffered the same terrifying nightmares.

"They come when I’m on my own." Said Jake "I’ve tried to blot out their presence with drink, but that only makes them worse" he held up his glass, Marcus nodded in agreement.

"I live alone." continued Jake. "A small apartment near Baker Street. With only a cat for company and a dear old biddy next door who is as deaf as a post and oblivious to the company I keep!" They both chuckled politely.

"So tell me about the hospital?" Jake enquired. Leaning forward in his seat , intrigued.

"Well they tried all this psychiatry stuff, saying I was going mad and that it was up to me to pull myself together, accept that it was all in the mind and get on with life."

"And did it work, trying to be positive I mean?"

Marcus gave another of his chuckles as he drew on his cigar. "It works as long as you are there and they are telling you that stuff twenty four hours a day. The demons are forced back in to their hiding hole, of course once you get back to normality and your every day life they start to creep out again. One at a time, testing you."

Jake didn’t like what he was saying, it un-nerved him somewhat. It made him feel as though Marcus was reading his thoughts.

"Hey, lets talk of cheerier things." Said Jake changing the subject .He didn’t feel comfortable having his darkest terrors being brought out into the open by someone he hardly knew. " It’s nearly Christmas, got any plans?" Marcus frowned, he wanted to talk about the ghouls’ get them off his chest, and a fellow victim was as good a person as any to tell.

"Not really, may go up and stay with the family in Oxfordshire. I’ve also got a sister in Dorset who has invited me over to stay for a few days. Have to wait and see really." He shrugged his shoulders and dragged heavily on his cigar. He looked towards the clock above the door and then checked it’s timing with his pocket watch. They read the same.

Out of the corner of his eye Jake spotted Edmund Robinson making his way across the room. He waved his hand in the air to catch Ed’s attention. "Robbie!"

Edmund spotted him and came over, his foppish hair bouncing up and down.

Jake stood up to greet him and exchange handshakes. " Good to see you pal, hey come and join us. I’ve brought Barberton and Festing with me. Old reprobates,

Can’t keep them away from a do like this!"

Jake turned to ask Marcus if he would like to join them too. At least the conversation would be a little more jovial. " Wou…." Marcus had gone. His empty glass sat on the tray and his smouldering stump of cigar lay in the ashtray. He scanned the room but couldn’t see Marcus anywhere. Shrugging his shoulders he picked up his glass and followed Edmund to the bar.

"Fancy sitting on your own?" Graham Festing said as he paid the barman for his drinks. " I wasn’t on my own, I was talking to a fellow, Lawson.. Can’t remember his other name."

"Oh well, he didn’t hang around. Come on lets go see who’s bothered to turn up this year." Edmund hurried off the little crowd following behind.

Edmund had always been a leader, the life and soul of party. The type of chap who never got flustered or lost his cool. Jake liked Edmund, he always felt comfortable in his company.

The evening passed pleasantly and by eleven thirty the room was beginning to empty. Calls of " See you next year" and arrangements for forthcoming Christmas parties were arranged. Jake went to the cloakroom to claim his hat and coat, he felt a little disappointed that he had not seen Marcus again…. That was it Marcus! That was the fellows’ name.

"Cheerio." Called Edmund. " Don’t forget to call round over the New Year. Sylvia would love to see you…. Promise now?" Jake chuckled. " I promise, as long as Sylvia doesn’t stuff me like a turkey." They both laughed. Sylvia was a good cook and anyone that turned down her invitation to come to eat was a fool.

"That chap I was talking to." Jake said as he buttoned up his coat. "Went by the name of Lofty Lawson- Marcus Lawson, remember him? I must say he looked familiar but can’t recall him as a member of the company." Edmund thought for a moment." Can’t say I do, that doesn’t mean to say he wasn’t of course."

"Oh well, never mind." Jake pulled his collar up around his ears as he saw the heavy rain pounding on the pavement, through the hotel doors. " Don’t want to miss my cab. See you." He said as he dashed out in to the rain and a waiting taxi.

 

Jake slept well that night. Probably better than he had for a long time. Maybe facing some old ghosts had helped he didn’t know. Whatever it was he felt refreshed and was now actually looking forward to Christmas.

The following week passed with the usual pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. He’d spent a busy Saturday afternoon trudging across London looking for presents and Saturday evening wrapping them.

On Sunday he caught the tube to Hampstead Heath and took a pleasant walk to his sisters house nearby. She’d pleaded with him to come and stay for Christmas, but he had politely declined saying he enjoyed the time on his own. That was a lie, he would have loved to see the giggling excited children, full of the joys of the season ripping open their presents from Father Christmas.

His sister somehow coaxed him in to joining them for Christmas lunch, although he had protested. He would arrive at noon and catch the eight pm tube back to Baker Street and walk the short distance back to his apartment in Montague Square.

Christmas Eve arrived and in true ‘stories of old’ fashion, the snows came. Through the night she cast a thick blanket over the whole of England. Jack Frost nipping at her heels followed behind turning streams and rivers opaque with ice. Birds pecked desperately at icicles that hung from roof tops and foxes burrowed deeper in to their warm cosy lairs.

Jake rose at eight a.m. The demons had come, although only briefly. He remembered waking in a cold sweat and untangling himself from the bed clothes. The dream itself vanished from his mind the moment he woke…. as though scurrying off to it’s hiding place.

He looked out of the window and smiled. "What a beautiful day." He said out loud. The sun could be seen poking over the roof tops. Soon the whole of London would be up and see the magnificent day that Christmas had brought with it.

After a pleasant leisurely breakfast and a walk to Cavendish Square to feed the birds. Jake collected his parcels together and set off for the tube. Exchanging pleasantries with strangers on the way and wishing them a ‘Merry Christmas.’

Three beaming faces were pressed against the window awaiting his arrival. "Uncle Jake, Uncle Jake!" The children squealed excitedly. "Let me get my coat of first." He laughed as Sam the youngest tried to disarm him of his packages.

The day was much pleasanter than he had expected. A number of visitors had called by, bringing gifts and exchanging gossip. Mrs Laidler said she’d heard that trains were getting stuck in snowdrifts in the West country and in the North. The heavy snows were heading south and were expected to arrive over night. She bid everyone good day and hurried off to tell others the news.

"I’ll be leaving a little earlier if you don’t mind Clara." Jake said to his sister as he eyed the heavy grey clouds that had covered the sun, blotting her out and making a beautiful day dark and dismal.

"Oh Jake stay overnight. It’s only once a year and you’ve no work tomorrow. It would be no trouble at all to put you up. We have the spare room?" She looked at him pleadingly. Jake looked towards the window and saw a flurry of snow sweeping by, carried by the fierce wind. A door upstairs rattled on it’s hinges as a gust of wind came down the chimney and ran through the house.

"Oh, I suppose you’re right." Sighed Jake. Clara smiled " I’ll get Mabel to go and make the bed up for you."

Mabel appeared as quickly as if she’d been standing on the other side of the door awaiting orders.

The children were chased off to bed as the Grandfather clock chimed eight thirty. Jake, Clara, her husband Albert and two newly arrived guests Charles and Isabel Connway-Smith spent the rest of the evening listening to the gramophone and having drinks. As the bells of Highgate church rang out the old day and welcomed in the new, Charles and Isabel got up to go. Profusely apologising for overstaying their welcome. Jake had enjoyed their company and was glad he hadn’t had to spend the evening making idle chat with Albert.

As the visitors bade farewell, Jake made his way upstairs to the guest room. A candle was lit by the bedside and a warm fire glowed in the hearth. He undressed and put on the clean night-shirt that had been laid out on the bed. He didn’t really feel like sleeping, although he was tired. He picked up a book from the table, sat down in the comfy chair in front of the fire and began to read.

He must have fallen asleep as he woke with a start. The candle had burned itself out, as had the fire. He could hear a commotion coming from outside. Men shouting and the sound of shells falling….. Disorientated he made his way to the window - It wasn’t there. In it’s place was a groundsheet covering a makeshift door frame. He ventured outside, his feet squelching in the cold wet mud.

"‘Ere Sir, over ‘ere." A hand motioned him over. He made his way towards the group of men. Oblivious to the fact he was wearing a blue and white striped nigh-shirt they began to discuss the impending attack. Rather than appear a fool Jake joined in. He directed Phillips and Hawkins to cover the Lewis guns. Golding and Weatherson were to move their teams up twenty yards and cover the right of the trench. Lawson, where was Lawson. Ah there. " Go and take this message to D coy and Quick!" Jake scribbled a few words on a piece of paper and handed it to the runner.

"Sir, there’s no way through. The communications trenches have been blown in."

"Just do it!" Barked Jake. He had enough on his mind, mortars were flying overhead, half of his section caught up in action further along the trench and now here he was in his night-shirt giving out orders. Calling for everyone to take up their positions he made his way back barefooted to the dug out. Where his servant had a clean set of clothes laid out for him to put on.

"Sir message from Brigade HQ."

"What is it!" He bellowed trying to belt up his breeches.

"Communications trenches too dangerous to go along. Messages to be sent via field radio. Only urgent ones at that. Report again in fifteen minutes to let them know of our situation and if back up is needed."

Jake waved the signaller away. He’d already sent Lawson off on foot.

Jake woke with a start, sweat dripped from his brow his night-shirt soaked. ‘Oh thank god only a dream’ he thought. He stood up and made his way over to the wash stand in the corner. His legs felt strange….looking down he saw that his feet and ankles were coated in dried on mud……

"Don’t go making your sisters’ carpet all dirty." The voice made him jump. He had thought he was alone in the room. " Not been paying attention have you. I said they’d come and catch you unawares. Start creeping in to your mind when you least expect it. How many more must there be eh? I’d say six maybe seven. Remember Freddie Carruthers? Smart little chap, make a good Sergeant they said. Only of course he didn’t ‘cos you got windy and sent him over the top too soon. And Clarry Johnson, oh cheeky little feller he was. You probably don’t remember him- like me? Sent him off on some silly errand…never came back."

Jake trying to ignore the ‘apparition’ filled the bowl with water from the tap and washed the mud from his feet. Marcus ‘Lofty’ Lawson stood directly in front of him, watching. "Washing away the evidence are you?" He sneered. His remark leaving Jake no alternative than to challenge his tormentor.

" I never meant any of it to happen!" Yelled Jake. "I didn’t want to be an officer. The war terrified me, still does. I didn’t want to be there sending men off to their deaths. Only by the grace of God did I survive."

Marcus sneered. He took off his hat. Jake looked at the gaping oozing wound. A chunk of skull hung over Marcus’ left eye as it clung to a ragged piece of flesh.

Suddenly from behind a German appeared, Jake grabbed the pistol from his holster and shot him at point blank range.

Heinrich!’ a voice cried.

"Sir!" It was Frank Talbot. " Sir he’d just been taken prisoner, given himself up. He had his hands in the air, disarmed everything..."

He hated that nightmare, that one was the worst, that one had been real. He remembered Frank’s horrified face. The group of German soldier’s hands in the air frightened he was going to shoot them too.

He said it was in self defence…the Army believed his version of events - The only ones who did.

Every time he had that dream he tried to remember the scenario, the calls of the other officers - memorising the scene. Something always made him forget and every time it ended with the German getting shot.

Suddenly he woke up. Daylight was beginning to peep through the curtains. He dragged himself from the bed and made his way towards the fire. Mabel had obviously been in and laid the fire as the warm glow of flames danced in the hearth.

He looked at his feet- they appeared clean. He searched the floor for traces of blood.. there were none. Satisfied that it had all been a nightmare he got himself dressed and washed and made his way downstairs to join his sister and her family for breakfast.

"Sleep well?" Enquired Clara as she poured him a cup of tea. " Thanks" He said in a non-committal way so that it could be taken as ‘thanks’ for the tea or ‘yes thank you I slept well.’

" Any plans for today then Jake?" Said Albert looking up from his morning paper. "We were thinking of taking a walk on Hampstead Heath, fancy joining us?"

"Well I…."

"Of course he will. Won’t you Jake?" Clara stood grinning at him. The children looked just as eager. " I hardly ever get to spend time with my dear brother. He’s always so busy with his work. I’m sure you must be earning at least five hundred pounds a year the hours you work!"

"All right." Laughed Jake defeated. " I’ll stay till teatime but not a minute longer." The children cheered then hurried off upstairs to get dressed. Mabel encouraging them on their way.

"Jake?" Said Clara. " I hope you don’t mind me asking, and I know this sounds silly. But did you have a visitor in your room last night?"

"Now that does sound silly!" Chuckled Jake as he spread marmalade on his toast. " I’m on the second floor. How on earth could someone have got up to my room?"

"Yes I knew it would sound silly." Sighed Clara. " It’s just that I woke up about two o’clock and I was sure I could hear voices coming from somewhere in the house. ‘Over ‘ere.’ One of them said and I could hear banging, a bit like thunder. Strange that’s all."

"Probably next door Clara." Albert mumbled as he caught up on the daily news. "You know what they’re like for having parties."

"I thought they’d gone to the country for Christmas this year?" Clara said as she poured herself another cup of tea.

 

Jake somehow got through the day, how he didn’t know but he did. It terrified him that he might be going mad. The nightmares were beginning to take over him. He didn’t know what was real and what was imagined any more. Were the characters in his dreams really from the war or characters based on people he had met? He couldn’t remember much about the ‘real’ war as reality and imaginings had become one.

Had he really been as much of a bullying coward as the ghost last night had made him out to be? Did he act out all the characters? Clara had heard the other voices too….

A wave of relief washed over him as the clock struck five and he could make his excuses to leave.

At home Bobbo was sitting patiently by the door awaiting her masters return. She rubbed herself around Jake’s legs, arched her back and began meowing loudly for her tea. Jake opened a tin of pilchards, half for Bobbo and half for sandwiches for himself.

He settled himself in front of the wireless and poured himself a long drink. He tried to reason with himself about the nightmares. He knew more than anything he needed to seek help. First thing after the New Year he would book himself an appointment with the doctor and get things sorted.

He must have fallen asleep, because a sudden jolt woke him up. The ground beneath him shook and debris began falling on his head. He called for Baxter his servant. It was too late Baxter was already dead. Jake clambered over the broken timber and earth. He tried to wake the men on guard duty, but they all lay silent – dead without a scratch on their bodies. He made his way along the trench, or what was left of it. He climbed over what had only hours earlier been the Signalling officers dug-out. A broken body lay splayed across the entrance. It was Robbie, dear old Robbie…….

The clock stuck four, Jake woke with a start. It was no good he wasn’t going to get a proper sleep tonight. He got dressed, wrapped up warmly and went out for a walk.

He walked and walked until the sun began to rise. He was safe now, he could go home and get ready for work.

"Merry Christmas Mr Hodgson, you’re up early. Been to church?" Norman opened the communal door to the apartments. Jake was startled by his remark. ‘Norman the doorman’ as he was known, had only spoken to him last evening asking whether he’d had an enjoyable time at his sisters.

"Overusing the greetings of the season don’t you think old chap?"

"What do you mean Mr Hodgson? It’s Christmas Day. The one day you should be wishing people the greetings of the season." Norman looked slightly puzzled as well as hurt. Mr Hodgson had always been such an amiable chap.

"Christmas Day was the day before yesterday. Today is the 27th the day I return to work and look forward to earning a few shillings to pay for the indulgences of the season."

"But Mr Hodgson look." Norman shoved the paper he was reading across the desk towards Jake. "It’s Wednesday the 25th Christmas day. Oh, and there’s a letter for you here. A foreign gentleman dropped it off for you last night. It was a bit late so I kept hold of it rather than disturb you late in the evening." Norman pulled a buff coloured envelope from beneath the counter.

Jake thanked Norman, and returned to his apartment feeling a little more than confused.

He was startled to see the presents he had bought for his niece and nephew lying on the sideboard. The cards he remembered opening and putting on the mantelpiece lay unopened on the hall table.

He sat down and hesitantly opened the envelope. Inside was a card depicting a pretty wintry scene. The words ‘Glucklich Weihnachten’ were embossed in fancy gold lettering. Inside it was signed Heinrich Stein….

Suddenly it all became too much.

The body was found several weeks later floating in the Thames. The police officer at the scene rifled through the dead man’s pockets. He found a gold fob watch with an Albert chain, a few old tube tickets that disintegrated in his fingers, and a wallet. He noticed the Gentleman also wore a regimental ring.

Opening the wallet, he found a few pounds and approximately five shillings and eight pence in change. ‘What’s this he thought?’ As he pulled out a sodden envelope. He gently unfolded the disintegrating card. He could just make out the words ‘Glucklich Weihnachten’……

 

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Tuesday 14 February 2006